The drive to Gangivecchio is golden. The mountain roads are edged in wheat. Bursts of turmeric-colored bushes surprise us as we make our ascent by car. Even the light falling across distant hilltops appears honey-colored.
It’s no wonder that some of the best caciocavallo we’ve tasted is served here, at a small inn and cooking school in the middle of the Madonie Mountains. The cheese is golden, too — the color of rich milk from animals grazing on nearby pastures.
The cheeses of the Madonie mountains are special, Giovanna Tornabene tells us proudly as she sets out a plate of caciocavallo (Kah-CHEE-oh-kah-vall-oh) on a green platter at her dining room table. Later her shepherd joins us, Salvatore Duca.
The two of them have worked out a good trade, Giovanna explains, her long gold earrings winking at us as she gives us a tour of the grounds, including a Benedictine abbey from the 14th century which is flanked by fruit trees and rose bushes. “I let the shepherd graze his animals on my land for free as long as he gives me fresh ricotta and caciocavallo.”
Caciocavallo is a traditional Sicilian cheese with an unusual shape: it looks like a water balloon. Bulbous, it’s made to air-dry in the sun, then travel by horseback down the mountain to market. When you see caciocavallo hanging in cheese shops, they are usually in pairs (originally, this was so they could be slung over a saddle). Look for them — they’re the size of boxing gloves.
One thing I love about this cheese is that its form derives from function. Even its name, caciocavallo, means “cheese on horseback.” It’s not named after a town, as so so many cheeses are, but after its method of transport.
At Gangivecchio, we eat half-moons of caciocavallo slathered with Giovanna’s spicy pepper jam. It’s just one of the many homegrown condiments she makes in her kitchen, part of a cooking school she runs at her inn. Guests come from all over the world to learn Sicilian cooking from her, having read the two James-Beard-Award winning cookbooks she wrote with her late mother Wanda. The books came about after an editor from Knopf stopped here for lunch 25 years ago.
“What did you serve him for lunch?” I ask.
Giovanna grins as steaming bowls of pasta emerge from the kitchen. “Exactly what you are having,” she says, proudly. The dish — Five Nut Pesto — is a revelation. Finely chopped pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios swim in olive oil lightly seasoned with garlic. Each bite yields all five favors, and Giovanna tells us that all of the nuts — except the pistachios — come from her own trees.
It’s easy to see why an editor would offer her a book deal after eating this dish.
Near the end of our meal, the shepherd joins us. He’s young, maybe 30 and speaks to Giovanna in Sicilian. He’s delighted that we are enjoying his caciocavallo and tells us, through Giovanna’s translation, that he is applying for regulatory status to make Sicilian cheeses using traditional methods — something the European Union manages now.
“We used to make cheeses like Homer describes,” Giovanna says. Now, cheese is made “like in a hospital.” She throws up her hands: “plastic baskets, white walls, people in masks!”
At Gangivecchio, Giovanna holds fast to tradition, both in the kitchen and in the field. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Visiting Gangivecchio: Giovanna’s inn has about dozen rooms. She offers her guests breakfast and dinner, along with cooking classes in preserving local delicacies and preparing Sicilian cuisine.
About this Project: This post is the third in a series for an interdisciplinary project called Due South. For two weeks, I will be in Sicily writing and photographing cheese. You can follow along here and on my Instagram: @mmefromage.
I came to Sicily to eat cheese from morning to night. So far, that has not been difficult. We arrived at dawn, the mountains washed in apricot light. The terrain I saw around me as I stepped out of the plane looked rugged and time-worn, the mountains smooth as if shaped by butter knives. In one direction: ocean. In the other: slopes stippled with cacti, palm trees, and gushing magenta bougainvillea. This island is a place of tropical delights — lemons sweet enough to peel and eat — but also a wild mix of culinary traditions including Greek, Roman, Norman, and Arab. I couldn’t wait to get a taste of the cheese.
Marianne Bernstein, the curator of this journey, greeted us at the railway station in Palermo with a wheel of Fior di Garofola that she had been given on her birthday a few days before. It was bestowed upon her by Karen La Rosa, a Sicilian travel guide who knew the purpose of our trek. I was stunned when I saw the box. The name of the cheese maker was the very same one who makes Tuma Persa in the hills outside Palermo (Tuma Persa was the subject of my last post).
Already, I loved Sicily for its curds and coincidences.
I want to give you a taste of Fior Di Garofola. Imagine lemon yogurt and pistachios. The paste is smooth, waxen. The rind stippled gray, like the lichen that grows on the stone houses of Tusa, the medieval village just east of Palermo where we would set down our bags and enjoy our first home-cooked meal.
Naturally, the meal’s first course started in the local Caseificio, a small cheese shop run by the local cheese maker, Rosalia Coppola, and her husband, the herdsman. Here, our host — a native Sicilian who is also a “Professore” in Saint Louis — procured a beautiful basket ricotta made from sheep’s milk. A second coincidence: I had been lured to Sicily on the promise of this very ricotta, described as “heavenly” and “fluffy” and “full of flavor.” Marianne and Cindi, my travel companions, had sought me out around this time last summer — we were strangers to each other then — to tell me how this ricotta had changed their lives.
And so we toasted our first night in Sicily with homemade wine and spoonfuls of basket ricotta. It was ethereal, cloud-like, and sweet with the taste of grass-fed milk. The Professore showed us how he liked to cut it, not in wedges but sliced horizontally (imagine shaving slices off a mountain) and then slivered into half-moons. We drizzled each piece with homemade Amerena cherries in syrup and cooed with pleasure, awed by a perfect first day book-ended by two guiding energies: dairy and serendipity.
Note: This post is part of a project called Due South, an artistic exploration of volcanic islands. For the next two weeks (or as long as I have wifi), I will be blogging from Sicily about our cheese discoveries.
Readers, you know that there are few things I enjoy more than a cheese odyssey. Today I leave for Sicily to begin a dairy adventure with a pair of artists, Marianne Bernstein and Cindi Ettinger, who are obsessed with volcanic islands.
The project, Due South, is Marianne’s second in a series of location-based collaborations designed to spark conversation between American artists and volcanic island communities. Why? To veer off the beaten path. To explore the cardinal directions. To splice contemporary art with small town life.
Believe me, when I received an email from Marianne inviting me out for coffee to talk about the cheeses she had tasted in Sicily, it never occurred to me that she was asking me to travel there with her. (I thought she wanted some ricotta for a gallery tasting.) But isn’t it funny how cheese brings people together?
Time and time again, I am amazed. Cheese is an invitation (tastebuds, come here!). And it is a collaboration — between hands, animals, and soil.
The knitting together of curds somehow brings people together to experience amazement.
I am so honored to participate in this voyage for the next two weeks.
And so, I present to you: one of the most interesting Sicilian cheeses I have tasted in the United States, Tuma Persa. Very soon, I hope to meet its maker.
The Cheese: Tuma Persa
Persa means forgotten. I have heard one thing and read another. When I first tasted this cheese at Di Bruno Bros. here in Philadelphia, I learned that it was called “forgotten” cheese because the maker had developed it from a lost recipe he discovered in a closet. I even wrote an entry about it in my last book, The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. Interestingly, my Slow Food edition of Italian Cheese explains that once this cheese has been “transferred to its hoop, it is persa (forgotten) for eight to ten days.” Then it is washed and brushed before salting, and forgotten again for another week and a half.
Here’s what I know: this cheese smells like salami. Think: black pepper, salt, meat, cured lemon. Its finish is spicy, like soppressata. I like to pair it with an Astoria Cocktail, which tastes a bit like the sea. Together, this pairing is what I imagine Sicily to taste and smell like.
The Drink: Astoria Cocktail
Made with “sweet” Hayman’s gin and dry vermouth, which is mellow and yeasty, this drink gets a touch of spice from orange bitters and a kick of citrus from a twist of lemon. Cool and mellow, it lets Tuma Persa unleash its big briny cloud of flavors. A gin martini with a fat old olive would work well here, too. But I like this combination. The Astoria, from the old Waldorf Astoria, is a bit briny. It’s one of the cocktails highlighted in my new book with Andre Darlington, The New Cocktail Hour (Running Press 2016).
1 ounce Old Tom gin (Hayman’s)
2 ounces dry vermouth (Dolin)
Dash orange bitters (Regan’s)
Lemon twist, for garnish
Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. To garnish, twist the peel over the surface of the drink to express the oil. Then, run the peel around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink.
Follow Us in Sicily via Instagram
My goal? To experience the island and its cheeses, to meet dairy farmers and cheesemakers, to create something to share as part of the Due South exhibition at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA) in January 2017.
To read more about Due South, check out this article in Times of Sicily.
Here in Philadelphia, we’re big fans of our local radio station, WHYY. It’s home to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, who I occasionally see hoofing it down the street, a twig of a person in a parka. Our station’s best-loved Philadelphia-centric show is “Radio Times,” hosted by local personality Marty Moss-Coane (pictured above). Now that I own an auto, I hear her smart purr in my ear several days a week.
When Marty’s producer reached out about doing a cheese show, I did a few high kicks in my kitchen. Yesterday, two local cheese makers and I joined Marty in the studio for an hour-long conversation. Give a listen and you will hear Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm and Stef Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse Creamery talk about entrepreneurial dairying, favorite pairings, and their philosophy behind making great cheese. Plus, we squeeze in a few vocal words you’ll want to add to your dairy lexicon.
Listen here: The American Cheese Renaissance on Radio Times
When Laura Chenel’s Chèvre approached me about developing a recipe for their Chef’s Chèvre I didn’t bat an eye before saying yes. Who says “no” to Sonoma goat cheese from one of the best companies in the business? Grand dame Laura Chenel has retired but is still revered as the pioneering American cheesemaker who supplied Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Think of Ms. Chenel as a caprine Coco Chanel.
When my two tubs of Chef’s Chèvre arrived, I tossed and turned over recipe ideas for several days—flipping through cookbooks when I couldn’t sleep (what if I swirl that goat cheese into lemon bars with fresh rosemary?) and daydreamed about a forager’s pizza with goat cheese, nettles, and juniper berries – a splendidly savory giant-cracker-thing that would pair with gin.
I wanted to create a stir.
Instead, my mind kept retrieving the glowing image of a recent avocado-toast encounter at Little Collins in New York (I know, I know – the avocado toast is so over, it’s under) and what I had liked so much: the avocado was mashed with feta cheese. The result tasted a wee bit too salty (probably because of the heavy brine on the feta), but delicious nonetheless, especially since it was topped with red pepper flakes and pumpkin seeds. The combination was all zest and crunch.
So, I present to you my summery adaptation, using fresh goat cheese in place of feta. Here you have it, the Chèvre-Cado Toast.
Rev your toaster. Then, combine half a ripe avocado and 2 tablespoons chèvre. Smash them together in a bowl with a fork. Add a sprinkle of sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Give it another quick stir. You won’t believe how light and fluffy it is.
Slather the chèvre-cado mixture on a hefty piece of toast. I like to use potato bread from my local bakery, High Street on Market. Crusty sourdough works well, too. I like when the chèvre-cado spread has crevices to seep into. (Chèvr-ices?)
Top with a few pinches of toasted pumpkin seeds, red pepper flakes, chopped fresh mint, and lemon zest. I love the interplay of all these bright, herbaceous flavors and the textural orchestra of crispy, creamy, and crunchy. If you’re having guests to brunch, set the garnishes out in bowls and let people top freely and wildly.
For breakfast, add a cup of sencha green tea. For lunch or a picnic, pop some bubbly and set out a plate of radishes, sliced oranges, and plump green olives.
Coming Up: June 1 Cocktail Book Dinner at Russet in Philadelphia
There are still a few spots left for my book dinner at Russet, one of Philadelphia’s best BYOs. Start with drinks on Russet’s back patio, and prepare to enjoy a slow seasonal meal paired with glorious libations. This will be an intimate meal, one seating, with a signed book included ($75; reservations: 215-546-1521). Hope to see you!